36

So a professor used a grad student's paper (anonymously) as an example of what not to do or what she doesn't want to see in the papers. The student was blindsided as the student wasn't notified that his paper would be used as an example, the student hasn't received a grade yet, and was not giving any corrections.

What would be a good way to handle this situation?

15
  • 11
    Depending on the field, things can get a whole lot more uncomfortable than that. – A rural reader Mar 26 at 1:44
  • 77
    What would be a good way for WHO to handle the situation? – Stig Hemmer Mar 26 at 10:28
  • 9
    When you say "paper" do you mean a journal submission or an assignment? To me "grad student" suggests the former (as my grad school didn't have that kind of assessment), but other bits of your question suggest the latter – Chris H Mar 26 at 10:48
  • 8
    If I were to do something like this, I would use an old paper from a student long gone, and anonymize. It's easy enough to generate fake examples, though. – Scott Seidman Mar 26 at 12:26
  • 4
    @ScottSeidman I would find that using using an entire paper from students "long gone" (unless perhaps you mean deceased) without their prior permission is still disrespectful. Depending on the intent, extracting single sentences from a random sampling of papers is to be preferred. – Jeffrey J Weimer Mar 26 at 15:00

11 Answers 11

62

This sort of behavior by a professor is poor pedagogical technique and, in many cultures, poor etiquette. It is not misconduct and it is not rule breaking. If you are a student and a professor acts this way, you can criticise the behavior in any anonymous teaching evaluations. Otherwise, ignore it and move on.

Receiving criticism, including bad quality criticism, is part of academic life.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Mar 28 at 20:50
30

This could be done in both a clumsy, rude way, and in a reasonable way. The apparent anonymity of the student in the critique is a step in the right direction.

In terms of "what should you do?", um, well, not too much. The anonymity means that there was no public shaming... Yes, there is a shock in seeing one's work even anonymously discussed as a bad example. In my own dealings of this sort, I attempt to truly anonymize the discussion, by not using verbatim (or video capture) of anyone's work, other than my own.

A comment to the instructor, that a lighter touch would be desirable, might be the only politick thing to do.

We might imagine that "grown-up professors" would know better than this kind of thing, but many of those "grown-ups" are merely older "nerds/geeks" of a not-necessarily socially-aware sort, whose intellectual chops have vastly outstripped their sense about people.

6
  • 4
    The professor read through the paper word for word and gave critiques like "I wouldn't have said that" "Does this make sense with you" "How do you feel about this statement" It was a lot. I can see why the student actually was upset. – Aaron Mar 26 at 1:27
  • 2
    @Aaron, did the professor address the student directly (and, thus, not anonymously) during the critique? Or were these remarks addressed to "the room"? It makes a huge difference... – paul garrett Mar 26 at 1:29
  • 16
    Well, the "intellectual chops" part is debatable too. – Elizabeth Henning Mar 26 at 1:35
  • 2
    @Aaron Okay, that certainly sound like too much and maybe you should add a note to the question that you are talking about the full paper and not some excerpts. I think an argument can be made for picking a specific sentence or paragraph, esp. if one uses examples from many different students (though constructing a generic example with a similar problem would be better), but this seems to be something else entirely. – mlk Mar 26 at 10:51
  • 4
    To be clearer about not giving certain types of people a free pass from being socially aware, I might add to the last paragraph something like "Building interpersonal skills might come less naturally to some of us than others, but it's still reasonable to expect such skills from anyone whose work has them deal with other people." – Greg Martin Mar 26 at 20:52
10

Ugh. I cannot believe professors do this, either as a good example or (worse) a poor example. You said that you're in the US, so it's completely legal unless it's easy to infer who the student was--for example, if there are a very small number of people in the class--in which case it's a FERPA violation.

If you believe it's a FERPA violation, then go to the department administration, and if they blow you off, go to the registrar or whomever is in charge of enforcing FERPA at your school. And if they blow you off, report it directly to the US Department of Education. I think there's an online form for that.

3
  • 16
    Protecting students is important. But what from? And how far do you escalate? Complaining is a finite resource. You spend too much on problems too small, and people will take you less seriously in the future, when you might need to complain about significantly worse things. – vsz Mar 26 at 15:45
  • 17
    @vsz It's up to the aggrieved to decide how far to pursue something. FERPA is enforced by the feds if there is a pattern of violations by a school, not any single violation, so reports of minor violations are important too. – Elizabeth Henning Mar 26 at 16:01
  • @vsz "You spend too much on problems too small, and people will take you less seriously in the future, when you might need to complain about significantly worse things." There is some truth to this, but really only if you complain about things so insignificant that they don't even justify the "fixed cost" of looking at a complaint. As long as you state up front the scope of your complaint, and limit it to what you can prove, then if it is truly "too small", the agency can simply dismiss it. The real danger is if you get a reputation for lying/exaggerating in complaints, so don't do that. – nanoman Mar 28 at 8:26
9

The professor may need to think about the value of such practice.

But, like it or not, there nothing anyone else can do.

This is already stated in much better ways in other answers, but since FERPA and other professional violation was mentioned in answers and comments. I'll just add what I just learned from my FERPA training.

Semi-public criticism, semi-public evaluation, or peer grading has been excluded from the the concept of "education record" in the 2008 revision to FERPA following the (US) Supreme Court decision in Owasso Independent School District v. Kristja Falvo. Here, semi-public can be understood as a classroom or a course with several sections (I'm not familiar with the legal terms). So at least FERPA will not provide any protection in this situation even if the name is not anonymized.

On a tangentially related point, if students don't like their work to be criticized somewhat anonymously, then they should really stay away from oral qualifying exams, comprehensive exams, dissertation defense, or submitting papers. It only gets worse from this point on (speaking as someone who has filed a similar complain as a graduate student).

2
  • 1
    Not sure Owasso v. Falvo exactly applies here because it specifically refers to peer grading. The point in Owasso is that it's OK for students to see each other's work and critique it prior to the instructor assigning grades. In the OP's situation, the instructor singled a student's work out with the implication that it wasn't good work, which is arguably information about the grade the student would receive. – Elizabeth Henning Mar 26 at 23:02
  • 3
    I have no legal knowledge, and I'm just paraphrasing my FERPA training material, where this very specific scenario was discussed: This part of the law is fairly value neutral. It doesn't distinguish singling someone's work and criticise it or praise it. The latter is a common practice of most educators. – user39093 Mar 27 at 0:10
6

If the name of the student is not given to class, then it is perfectly OK. It would be bad if the Professor reveals the name. For example if it was a test and 20% of students made the same mistake. Then the Professor can (or even should) discuss this mistake in class.

4
  • 29
    It’s not “perfectly okay” — it might be less bad if the name isn’t mentioned, but information can leak even without using names. Handwriting, grammar and other aspects of the work (even a choice of font or formatting style of a digital document) can all give clues into the author’s identity, and besides, it’s plain disrespectful to use someone’s work without their permission to make a point. Discuss common mistakes, by all means, but don’t flash someone’s assignment on the screen without asking them first. – Dan Romik Mar 26 at 7:13
  • 3
    Also to mention that, in the US, FERPA likely does not allow any second guessing about this as a violation. You cannot show a student's graded work without their prior permission in a way that other students may be able to decipher the source, even when you think that you have gone to great lengths to make the source anonymous. – Jeffrey J Weimer Mar 26 at 14:55
  • 4
    The OP mentioned in another comment that the professor read through the paper word-for-word inserting critiques. There's a huge difference between talking about something that was common to many people or talking about something generically vs. singling out one person, even anonymously. – user3067860 Mar 26 at 15:58
  • It could be that 20% of students made the same mistake and the Professor wanted to illustrate it using one of the papers. Nothing is wrong with that. – user135405 Mar 26 at 16:33
6

On the whole, this pedagogical technique is fair game

If this is a groundbreaking research paper in the process of peer review, this could be a breach of confidentiality. One could argue that it is a breach of the author's copyright, but it is possible that the author has waived it by submitting the paper, and even if that were not the case, the professor could argue that his/her usage is fair dealing under an educational exemption or such like.

Beyond the potential "confidentiality prior to publication" and "copyright" reasons, I see nothing objectionable in this practice. But, judging by some of the other answers, this issue seems to be very culturally contingent, with some institutions and countries having a very different attitude from mine (I am an arts & humanities scholar educated and based in the UK).

Personally, I think that analysing a weak essay can be a very effective pedagogical tool for everybody, including the student(s) whose work is quoted. Provided that the criticism relates to the content and does not involve ad hominem attacks on the author, it is fair game.

It is very important for a postgraduate student to learn to handle harsh criticism of his/her work -- robust and candid (and constructive) criticism is essential to the functioning of academia, and a serious postgraduate will have to handle it sooner or later if he/she expects to complete a PhD successfully or publish in a peer-reviewed outlet. I remember the first time I received peer-review comments in relation to a book-chapter, and, upon first reading, was taken aback by the criticism (of many months of hard work), and this despite my having a very thick skin and having candid PhD supervisors who put me through my paces. But I did take on board the comments, soon appreciated their validity, and made the necessary improvements.

4

Unless the professor leaked some amount of information that could make the student easily identifiable, I don't think there is anything that can be done (at least for US universities).

This answer is bound to be unpopular, but I personally wouldn't view this as a bad thing from the student's perspective (although I can fully sympathize with the student being taken aback). The student is getting direct feedback from the professor and potentially the class, and is likely going to be getting much more feedback than the typical scribbles most professors leave in the margins while grading. This potentially opens a window for increased learning and growth due to receiving additional, detailed feedback. It is also reasonable practice for receiving feedback during committee meetings or a department-wide presentation.

While this may not have been handled well, at all the universities I have been affiliated with, this kind of practice is 100% fair game (including without prior notice).

What the Professor Could Have Done Better

In general, it is a common courtesy to let students know if their work is going to be publicly discussed during class. At a bare minimum, the professor should have mentioned in the syllabus that assignments may be used for anonymous, public critique. Most preferably, this should have been announced during the first day of class. I have also found that when students know their work may be made public, they tend to put more effort into assignments, so knowing ahead of time is beneficial.

What the student could consider doing

If the student is comfortable doing so, I would recommend emailing the professor or talking with them privately during office hours. Depending on how the student feels, I would recommend saying something along the lines of:

a) "I appreciate the direct feedback I received in class, but having my work made public without notice made me pretty uncomfortable. Could you give me advanced notice next time you are planning to use one of my assignments?"

b) "I appreciate the direct feedback I received in class, but having my work made public without notice made me pretty uncomfortable. Would it be possible for you not to use any of my future assignments publicly? If I have made some serious mistakes I would rather discuss it with you privately during office hours then have them displayed publicly to the class."

Hopefully the professor is a reasonable person who does not intentionally want to make students highly uncomfortable. If the professor is doing so unknowingly, I think it is better for them to hear from a student personally rather than as a negative anonymous review after the semester is already over.

As long as the professor does not feel attacked or accused when approached by the student, I think there is a good chance they will be open to considering the student's feedback.

0

A better way to do this sort of thing is to not single out any one student.

This happened, very effectively, to me in my first week as a grad student. Monday we dozen students chose technical terms out of a hat, and trooped over to the reference library (this was pre-Web). Wednesday we submitted one-page essays explaining those terms. Friday the professor surprised us with a pageful of howlers excerpted anonymously from all of our submissions. He didn't need to say anything: the gasps of private recognition all around the table showed that we saw that we didn't yet know how to write.

2
  • 1
    I would still beg the question as to whether an advanced, official notice was required that your reports would be shared to the entire class in full or as excerpts. If not required, expected for holding to a standard of professional respect between you and the instructor. – Jeffrey J Weimer Mar 26 at 21:16
  • 1
    @JeffreyJWeimer In my experience advanced notice is not required. I do agree though that advanced notice is a general common courtesy. Some profs like to 'trick' students by not notifying them (such as in this post), and while I'm not necessarily a fan of the practice, you can see it left a lasting, and in this case positive, impact on the poster. – Cole Mar 27 at 0:26
0

Needless to say this is terrible from a pedagogical point of view. Way to go and generate a toxic learning environment.

Most answers here are focusing only on the anonymity part of the question and disregarding another fundamental aspect of it: the possible impact this might have on the student's (and peers) self-confidence and trust on themselves and the instructor.

If you're the student: Send a polite email to the instructor asking them not to use your assignments (or your peers') as examples in the future. You don't even need to explain why, something as simple as "I'd appreciate it if you could avoid using my submissions as examples in the future." would be enough.

If you're the instructor: don't do this.

0

Your voice matters. There is always something to be done. Academia should be an environment where critical thinking and questioning of practices is natural and encouraged.

It could be that there are no pre-existing mechanisms to address this at your institution, e.g. some shared code for what's allowed in classes, and somewhere to report violations. If there is not, I would recommend discussing with your fellow students what their opinions are on this matter. A student council, if existing, might be a natural venue for this. An open mind should be kept, and arguments in favor of this practice should be considered. If there is no student council, it could be a good opportunity to start one. Maybe it turns out that there are other practices that students wish to speak up against. Another option might be an open letter to the head of teaching signed by you and other students who agree with you.

0

Go to the Head of Dept. Say that examples of bad practice (if they really need to be made) should be made with past student papers - otherwise it becomes a means for a professor to create his/her own hierarchy among students and a justification by conceited/cynical grad students to adopt superior airs. Tell the HoD that you will NOT accept this and that if the professor concerned does not immediately acknowledge the wrong they did (as opposed to some spurious apology that simply acknowledges apparent offence on the part of the victim) then you will go to the Grad Students Union or elsewhere.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.